Since November, Indians have utilized Twitter to criticize the government’s recent agricultural reforms that have since sparked a nationwide protest of over 250 million people. As of Feb. 10, Twitter had suspended more than 500 Indian accounts sympathetic to protestors, citing fears of violence. Only after a major outcry did the company reinstate several press-related accounts.
Twitter was right to ban some of the accounts, especially the small number that advocated for violence against elected officials and used hashtags referencing the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. However, the social media company also suspended the accounts of multiple journalists and news organizations critical of the Indian government’s reforms. The tech company was wrong in suspending accounts that did not share violent content and should abstain from indiscriminately banning private accounts at the behest of undemocratic leaders.
The laws at the center of the protests sweeping India allow private buyers to cheaply purchase crops from small farmers and remove price controls for essential crops. We believe that these laws permit private corporations to seize large tracts of agricultural land for next to nothing, all while leaving small farmers without a clear or equitable exit strategy. Although the government asserts that the reforms will increase rural incomes across the country, millions of farmers are still terrified of losing their land and incomes. Around 50% of India’s population directly or indirectly depends on small-scale agriculture for a living, and their economic vulnerability is extreme. Many farmers are severely indebted, living in impoverished conditions that have only worsened since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Since the protests began, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has resorted to draconian measures to obscure dissent from public consciousness. For instance, the Indian government demanded that Twitter executives suspend all Indian accounts that advocated for violence against protestors using the hashtag #FarmerGenocide. Twitter’s compliance in banning accounts promoting violence was appropriate; however, the government also pressured the social media platform to ban accounts that used a slightly different hashtag — #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide — and threatened to imprison Indian Twitter employees if the tech giant did not comply.
The government has blocked internet access in restive regions of the country and prevented online activists from disseminating information that would aid their cause. Despite these obstructions, thousands of farmers have encamped around New Delhi, using tractors and farming equipment as temporary residences while they pressure the government to make concessions. On Jan. 25, the protests erupted into violence as police officers fired tear gas at protesters, who retaliated using makeshift weapons. Twitter could worsen the farmers’ bleak future if the company continues to assist the Indian government in censoring popular protests.
Until former President Donald Trump incited a riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, largely through his personal Twitter account, technology corporations hesitated to stand against users, especially world leaders who share politically insensitive or hateful content. In the past, Twitter, Facebook and Google have avoided important ethical dilemmas — such as moderating and labeling misleading content — to remain politically neutral in the public eye. For too long, social media companies defended an idealized vision of free speech that allowed bigotry to flourish in plain sight. Technology has become inherently, inescapably political.
To its credit, Twitter banned Trump’s account within hours of the riot at the Capitol. But what the company did in the U.S. is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Now that Twitter and other social media platforms are taking the initiative to regulate violent content, these companies have an ethical responsibility to carefully measure the impact of their decisions to suspend or ban accounts.
We supposedly live in a postcolonial world. However, Twitter, a Western corporation, is embroiled in the political landscape of an industrializing country. We cannot let Twitter’s handling of Trump — a former U.S. president and a white, privileged American man — dictate how social media platforms deal with freedom of speech and civil disobedience in other countries. Social media platforms must accept the reality that they have become political juggernauts. Otherwise, authoritarian figures will continue to manipulate Twitter and other social media corporations to achieve their interests abroad and at home.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Sahar Al-Gazzali, Brammhi Balarajan, Viviana Barreto, Rachel Broun, Jake Busch, Sara Khan, Sophia Ling, Martin Shane Li, Demetrios Mammas, Meredith McKelvey, Sara Perez, Ben Thomas, Leah Woldai, Lynnea Zhang and Yun Zhu.